I know predictions are cliche for this site and this time of year, but I wrote obscenely long Western Conference preview for something else and thought, what the hell, I'll put it up here and see if people respond. Enjoy if you have the patience to read it all.
1. Detroit Red Wings (1st in Central)
(This'll be a bit longer than the rest; they're my team, okay?) The Red Wings can't be described with a single word, but if I had to pick one I would go with "depth." If the Wings were any deeper, they'd be in hell. Let's start by considering that the Red Wings will open the season with three of the top ten forwards in the league (Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Hossa), arguably the league's best player--and inarguably best defender (Nicklas Lidstrom), two other defenders who will challenge for the top ten in defense scoring (Rafalski, Kronwall) and a last year's GAA leader (Osgood)--not to mention, probably the league's best coach (Babcock).
But star power alone isn't the reason Detroit should win the Stanley Cup again this year. Consider that the projected third line (Samuelsson, Filppula, Cleary) was already Detroit's second line at the beginning of last year. Consider that a key playoff performer from last year (Helm) probably won't even make the team. Consider also that no fewer than six NHL-ready defensemen (Lilja, Lebda, Chelios, Meech, Quincey, Ericsson) are competing for the last two spots on the depth chart. The reason that Detroit should win the Stanley Cup again this year is because the sheer amount of game-tested, NHL-caliber talent oozing out of the roster gives the team, by far, the NHL's best injury insurance. Every team deals with injuries throughout the season; very few have the spare pieces available to plug major holes. Detroit does.
But, I would be nothing more than a biased zealot if I didn't at least mention the goaltending. I may be the only NHL pundit saying that the Red Wings might actually miss Dominik Hasek this year. Don't get me wrong; Osgood was the better goaltender of the two throughout last season and finally proved that he's one of the NHL's better netminders. But, he hasn't been a full-time starter since the 2003-04 campaign with the St. Louis Blues, and new backup Ty Conklin, though stellar last season in relief of Pittsburgh's Fluery, has never been a full-time starter and has been plagued by consistency problems throughout his career. There's no guarantee that Conklin will be good; will Osgood be able to handle a hefty workload (60+ games) should his backup falter? And will Conklin (or prospects Jimmy Howard or Daniel Larsson) be able to keep the team afloat should injury befall Osgood? The jury is still out.
2. Dallas Stars (1st in Pacific)
Dallas has something that, due to the salary cap, most teams can't afford--balance. The Stars' roster contains a great mix of young players and veterans, playmakers and scorers, checkers and agitators. They're stacked at center with Ribeiro, Richards and the aging but still effective Mike Modano. Steve Ott and Sean Avery are both supremely annoying and good players. Marty Turco is one of the best netminders in the NHL. The defense isn't quite as strong as that of division rivals San Jose and Anaheim and it will be missing Sergei Zubov until late this month, but it's still pretty good--and the Dallas offense is significantly better than that of the other Pacific powerhouses. The Stars aren't as deep as Detroit, but they have plenty of skill, plenty of jam and, if Turco is playing at his best, probably the next-best chance at taking home the trophy.
3. Calgary Flames (1st in Northwest)
The difference between first and last in the Northwest last season was ten points, less than half the amount of any other division. So, picking a winner is damn near impossible; still, I think I'm taking the Flames. All the good teams in the West (and even some of the bad ones) have a good group of defensemen in front of a great goalie; that's also very true in Calgary. Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr form an intimidating 1-2 punch on the blueline, and the squadron is deep enough that veterans Rhett Warrener and Anders Eriksson might not even start. There's definitely concern about the team's offensive depth, especially at left wing where they'll miss Kristian Huselius, but new forward Mike Cammalleri will help and Jarome Iginla is … well, Jarome Iginla. In a very competitive but very mediocre division, it'll be enough.
4. San Jose Sharks (2nd in Pacific)
The Sharks are returning with almost exactly the same roster that finished second to Detroit in the regular season last year, exchanging only defensemen Brian Campbell and Matt Carle for Dan Boyle and Rob Blake--a shift that makes San Jose older, but also better offensively and defensively. While that does mean the team should have another great regular season, it also means it's up to rookie head coach Todd McClellan to change the culture of underachieving in the playoffs. If he's up to the challenge, San Jose is as good a challenger to dethrone Detroit as any. If not, it'll be another great defending, low scoring, strong regular season and early exit for the teal and black.
5. Anaheim Ducks (3rd in Pacific)
Brian Burke is not a good GM. There, I said it. Almost all of the 2007 Cup-winning roster (and most of the key players still today) he inherited from the previous administration. He has badly managed the cap. The entire forward unit consists of two very good scorers (Getzlaf and Selanne), two good scorers (Kunitz and Perry) and a fistful of defensive forwards and fourth liners. In the last year, in order to fit all-world defender Scott Niedermayer (once) and forward Selanne (twice) under the salary cap, Burke has been forced to part ways with Andy McDonald, Todd Bertuzzi, Mathieu Schneider and Sean O'Donnell, depleting the team's depth at both forward and defense. As long as super-elite defenders Nidermayer and Pronger and goaltender J.S. Giguere are around, the Ducks will be in contention--but throw in a few ill-timed injuries, and things could come apart in a big hurry.
6. Colorado Avalanche (2nd in Northwest)
The report of Colorado's death is an exaggeration. A lot of people are picking the Avs to fall out of the playoffs this season, and if they have as many injury problems as last year they certainly will (and could easily wind up last in their own division). But, here are some thoughts for you. Fact: last season, the Avalanche had the best goal differential (+12) in the Northwest. Fact: goalie Peter Budaj, though unspectacular, has put up winning seasons every year in the NHL and isn't that much of a downgrade from Jose Theodore. Fact: Colorado has three good scoring centers (Stastny, Sakic, Arnason) and can roll three lines when healthy, something few teams can do. And fact: Although they may have some problems with the transition game, Colorado's defenders are much better than advertised in their own zone. But, before I pump them up too much, let's also say this: the Avs are treading water, big time. I think they have enough talent to make it in to the playoffs this season, but Budaj isn't good enough to be a long-term solution, there are few blue-chip prospects in the system and, like St. Louis, too many of their best players (Sakic, Foote, Hejduk) are on the back halves of their careers. Colorado isn't dead, but it's dying, and unless GM Francois Giguere has the intestinal fortitude to sabotage a potential playoff run and trade away some older players for picks and prospects, this team could fade quickly by next fall.
7. Chicago Blackhawks (2nd in Central)
This was a tough call. A lot of analysts have been saying and writing that this is the year the Hawks finally emerge as a contender; John Buccigross even had them placed 4th in the West in his annual preview. Call me cautiously optimistic. True, all-star youngsters Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews will be even better this time around, but the team also lost two good contributors over the offseason (former Wings Robert Lang and Jason Williams). Unless Patrick Sharp repeats his breakout performance from last season and Martin Havlat stays healthy (both seem unlikely), this team is going to look very, very shallow up front. Incoming D Brian Campbell will improve the offense and help out the power play, but is a defensive liability and should be held to second-pairing minutes at even strength. In the end, I think Chicago has enough to hang in the playoff race (and should fetch a good price for Khabibulin at the trade deadline) and overtake Nashville in the Central, but the Blackhawks are still a year away from contending.
8. Minnesota Wild (3rd in Northwest)
Losing Pavol Demitra and Brian Rolston hurts, but as long as Jacques Lemaire is still behind the bench, the Wild are still the Wild. This team is going to play great (boring, but great) team defense and get good goaltending from either Backstrom or Harding. The forward depth--as always--remains an issue in Minnesota, particularly at center, where Mikko Koivu is really the only good scorer. And without Demitra and Rolston, Minny won't have a backup plan if Marian Gaborik can't stay healthy. Still, Minnesota has a secret weapon: its defense corps. Although you won't find a superstar among the top seven, most of them play a smooth, all-around game, and all of them possess good puck-moving skills. You need a good transition game to play Lemaire's stifling defensive system, and the Wild defense is more than competent in that department. Brent Burns could quietly put up 50 points from the blueline. If he does, and Gaborik stays healthy, winning the division certainly isn't out of the question.
9. Nashville Predators (3rd in Central)
I really didn't want to put this team out of the playoffs. For one, I absolutely love the defense--Weber, Suter and Hamhuis are all young and are great all-around players. Two, the Predators have tons of cap space, and they would ever use it they could be top team. Coach Barry Trotz always has his team working hard and Nashville should be in the running for a playoff spot until the very end, but it's just too much to pick a team that, after finishing eighth in the West last year, lost a top-pairing defensemen (Zidlicky) and first line forward and added no one of consequence during the offseason. If the above mentioned plagues hit Chicago I think Nashville will have a good chance make it in; unlike Chicago, though, Nashville doesn't have a ton of improving young players in its system. The Preds do have a good foundation, and if the new ownership group is committed to spending close to the cap in 2009-10 they will be right back in contention with the best of the West.
10. Edmonton Oilers (4th in Northwest)
The Oilers should be, by far, the most fun team to watch in the Northwest this season. They have enough speed, skill and potential to fill two of Garth Snow's old equipment bags. New acquisition Erik Cole should fit right in and, with the assumed improvement of sophomores Gagner and Cogliano and puck-moving skills of the incoming Lubomir Visnovsky, the offense will be even better than last year. If everything goes right, winning the division is possible. But, I'm not sold just yet. Edmonton's real problem is its defense, and with Joni Pitkanen now departed for Carolina, the Oilers may have taken a step backward. Edmonton gave up 247 goals last season, five more than the worst defense to make the playoffs (Ottawa). Edmonton's goal differential last season was minus 27; only Boston (minus 9) made the playoffs last year while allowing more goals than they scored. Starting goaltender Mathieu Garon, now 30 years old, is a career backup who was terrible in his only season as a full-time starter (2005-06 with Los Angeles); he or backup Dwayne Roloson could have good seasons, but it seems unlikely. And, it's also unlikely that Edmonton will approach the utterly ridiculous 15 shootout wins it earned last year, which accounted for 37 percent of the team's victories and 34 percent of its total points and made the final standings look much better than they probably should have. The Oil will be exciting, and they will probably be better than last year, but I don't think they'll make it in.
11. Vancouver Canucks (5th in Northwest)
Vancouver is a trendy pick for last in the division, and it's really not fair. The Canucks really aren't a terrible team. They put up 88 points last season and probably won't fare that much worse this time around. Bernier, Demitra and Wellwood more or less replace Naslund and Morrison offensively, at least on paper. Luongo is still arguably the best goalie in the game. The defensemen, while unspectacular, are solid. The Canucks will be in the playoff hunt until the end--every team in the Northwest will--and if some of their competitors suffer key injuries they definitely have a shot at sneaking in. Hell, they have a shot at winning the division. But I don't think it will happen. Sorry.
12. Columbus Blue Jackets (4th in Central)
The Blue Jackets will be better this season, and probably should contend for a playoff spot. I don't think they'll get in this year, but I like what I see--two good goalies, a few great offensive prospects (Derick Brassard and Jakub Voracek), and of course, all-star forward Rick Nash. The lack of a true No. 1 center and any trace of proven, puck-moving defensemen will keep the team on the outside for now, but with continued good coaching and maybe one or two small, smart trades, the Jackets aren't that far away from icing a competitive team.
13. Phoenix Coyotes (4th in Pacific)
The Coyotes took a big gamble by trading away two good, young defensemen for first-line center Olli Jokinen. Considering their situation and roster (and the fact that Jokinen is signed through 2010), though, it was probably the right move. Other than that, the Coyotes didn't do much over the offseason to change last season's 12th-place squad, and although they have some good, young pieces and potential impact rookies at both forward and defense, and a pretty good goaltender in Ilya Bryzgalov, I don't think they'll have quite enough in the competitive West
14. St. Louis Blues (5th in Central)
The injury to D Erik Johnson is devastating, for both the long and short term--he's the Blues' best young player and only reliable puck-moving defensemen. The Blues do have some talented players, and the addition of exiled Nashville goaltender Chris Mason should allow chronically underrated starter Manny Legace some extra rest, as he tends to wear down over a long season. The Blues won't be terrible, but they just don't have enough talent to compete for a playoff spot, and with most of their key players over 30 years old (Kariya, Tkachuk, McDonald, Legace) the Blues might have to get worse--again--before they get better.
15. Los Angeles Kings (5th in Pacific)
It's tough to really determine how a team like the Kings will perform this season. They're oozing with talent (Johnson, Doughty, Kopitar, Brown, Frolov, Bernier all spring to mind), but very, very light on experience. The top line of O'Sullivan, Kopitar and Frolov could be one of the best in the NHL. If the young offense matures faster than expected and 20-year-old goalie of the future Jonathan Bernier takes a gigantic leap forward, this team could not only make the playoffs but actually do some damage. Still, that's a lot to ask, and with a mediocre defense and hideous goaltending (Jason LaBarbera enters his second straight season as the NHL's worst starting netminder; the Kings ranked 28th in goals allowed last season), I think the Kings are at least another year away. Next year, though ...